Review: Festen (Steep Theatre)

  
  

A party of full earth-shattering disclosure

  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

   

Steep Theatre presents

  

Festen

   
Dramatization by David Eldridge
Based on Dogme film/play
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A young melancholy Danish man who is the eldest son and heir to his father’s fortune becomes racked with grief after the drowning suicide of the closest female companion in his life. His sanity is in question. The patriarch of this empire is being celebrated while the son, who knows of a terrible family secret, plots revenge against this man who has destroyed his and his family’s life. Oh, and there’s a ghost. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking: Festen, a dramatic adaptation of a film from the Dogme series, you’d be correct. Any connection to that older play about a Danish prince is purely coincidental—and what a fascinating layer of coincidence it is. Director Jonathan Berry’s production of the Midwest premiere of this London hit is compelling from start to finish. Steep and artistic director Peter Moore have given Chicago audiences what’s sure to be a highlight of the season by bringing this hauntingly human piece to their intimate storefront space.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.While the resemblance to Hamlet is resonant (as Berry himself notes) the play takes its cue from several resources. “Festen” was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, a style of no-frills filmmaking that focuses on stripping away production elements and focusing on verisimilitude in acting, story and mise-en-scène. The setting is the 60th birthday party for Helge (a difficult role mastered by Norm Woodel), the patriarch of an enterprise where family, business and home become entangled. The arrival of the family members is somewhat reminiscent of those murder mysteries where the characters all arrive, and are introduced, each with their own eccentricities. The audience becomes familiar with them in a light-hearted fashion. However, something is quickly off kilter here as Helge’s son Michael (Michael Salinas) begins a profanity laden tirade against one of the servants, Lars (Alex Gillmor) while treating his wife (Sasha Gioppo) like a slave, all in front of his young daughter (Julia Baker).

Some of the other party guests include Helge’s remaining children Christian (Kevin Stark) and Helene (Julia Siple), Helge’s brother Poul (Pete Esposito), his father (Toby Nicholson), and wife Else (Melissa Riemer).This family, on the surface, is more of a well oiled corporation as a whole. When horrid accusations are made by Christian, they are at first mere chinks in the empire that Helge has built. Those more blindly loyal to Helge, like Poul and his personal manager Helmut (James Allen), remain unfazed and continue with routine artificial celebration. All the while, it is the servants on this estate who are clearly running the show. They act as the silent all-knowing purveyors of justice who can completely throw the chain of events off course by simply hiding a set of car keys or a reluctance to pour a glass of port.

To really delve into what’s at stake for the characters in this play would be to divulge certain revelations that you, as audience member, should avoid knowing beforehand if at all possible. The audience response was silent, yet palpable and electric on the night I attended. One of the more fascinating scenes of the evening involves a perfect amalgamation of direction, acting and design in which three separate interactions occur simultaneously in the same area of the stage. A husband and wife make violent love against a wall while a woman reads her sister’s suicide note while another man refuses sexual advances and contemplates his own contempt. All of these moments happen within feet from each other in a choreographed response and obliviousness of the others.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.There is not a weak link in this ensemble. It is cast with precision and great care for each of these characters. It will be a crime if the Jeff committee doesn’t remember this ensemble come next year. Kevin Stark leads the cast with his perfect portrayal of repression and redemption. Reimer’s final line in the play is delivered with such calculated casualty that it seems to lift a spell off this wounded family. I could go through why each of these actors should receive recognition, but that’s not quite what this play is about. This is truly about actors providing a service to their audience and to the story. No one actor ever goes too far with the drama or heaviness of the situation, but rather respects these people and story to the fullest extent.

Berry adds the perfect amount of theatricality to grip the audience viscerally and emotionally. His attention to the rituals of this world and their subsequent collapse is telling and authentic. Christopher Kriz’s sound design provides a driving emotional soundscape that encompasses a vast spectrum proving to be ghostly, elegant, foreboding, and yet hopeful. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design creates magnificent shadow effects as well as separates areas of this small space to help convey the story ever that much clearer. The minimalism of Dan Stratton’s clean Scandinavian set design echoes Ibsen and Bergman. The white sterile ornate walls and furniture proves to be disturbing in both an ethereal manner as well as disgusting as a reflection of certain revelations. Prop designer Sarah Burnham’s glassware and table settings play a vital role as they are surgically set in place. Janice Pytel’s costume design is at its best in the contrast between the color in the final scene and the formal coldness in the rest of the production.

Festen is a sophisticated journey of both the emotional and the psychological. It’s a rare piece of theatre that gives the audience a physical reaction to events. There is a moment in the final scene where Michael’s daughter sits on one of the character’s laps. She simply wants a storybook read to her. Due to common knowledge, everyone in the audience shared a knee-jerk reaction along with Gioppo as her mother. In the end, the audience has witnessed first-hand the revelations made and the life altering changes of these characters. I can only imagine what it must be like to see this play and have repressed similar horrific events that are referenced, and it’s very likely more than one seat will be filled with these individuals. While this is beyond heartbreaking, it is also doubtless that we all have hurtful occurrences big or small we’ve suppressed rather than forgotten or healed from. Festen shines a light on the courage of people who confront these battles, many within the private walls of their homes or minds.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

Steep Theatre’s production of Festen, by David Eldridge continues through June 11th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

  
  

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REVIEW: State of the Union (Strawdog Theatre)

 

An intriguing political chess game

 

 Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

   
Strawdog Theatre presents
   
State of the Union
   
Written by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay
Directed by
Geoff Button
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

For a political play to matter much, it must prove its relevance beyond its genesis. These dramas must rise above the particulars of their time-sensitive plots and reveal to us a greater truth, something about the human condition or the faults of our society. State of the Union, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, is an example of this brilliant kind of evergreen political theatre.

Written by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, the play may be rooted in mid-20th century politics, but its tale of political gaming and pandering is as true today as it ever was then. And infused with the talent of the Strawdog Theatre Company, State of the Union manages to not only serve as editorial but as a charmingly funny piece of theatre.

Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com The play centers around political outsider and businessman Grant Matthews (Michael Dailey). Republican political insiders are priming him to be the dark horse candidate in the upcoming presidential election. This includes Kay Thorndyke (Kristina Johnson), a Republican newspaper editor and not-so-secret mistress to Matthews.

Yet, Matthews gives the political bigwigs reason for hesitation when he hits the speaker circuit where he talks about timely issues from his heart rather than from any party’s platform. Much of this honesty is delivered at the behest of his wife, Mary (Kendra Thulin), who like her husband is an idealist. She believes that politicians serve their own self-interest rather than the interests of the people, and upon finding out that her husband may be running for the presidency, she pushes him to stick to his populist convictions.

Unfortunately, playing politics is a dirty game. As we get a peak behind the political curtain, we see just how much strategizing, manipulating and palm greasing actually takes place. This puts Grant in quite the pickle, pitting him against his party, his ideals, his mistress and his wife.

Although I’ve never been a politician, I can confidently say that State of the Union doesn’t seem to be too far from the truth. Look at modern-day outsider candidates like Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who, once receiving their party’s nomination, were quick to start spewing the same Republican talking points. The only difference is that Grant is a likeable and intelligent candidate, whereas his real-life counterparts are divisive and seemingly simple.

Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com Strawdog has assembled an amazing cast. Dailey portrays grant as a sympathetic idealist. The kindness and sincerity he brings to the role helps us identify with him despite the fact that he’s a flawed husband. Likewise, Thulin provides Mary with a boldness that makes her a believably powerful force against the chummy, political insider boys’ club. Other standout performances include BF Helman as political strategist Jim Conover and Anderson Lawfer as the sassy journalist/campaign manager Spike MacManus.

Geoff Button’s direction is commendable, especially given the sheer number of entrances and exits he has to manage throughout the play, especially in the third act, which is one of those party scenes that literally fills the room with colorful characters.

If the upcoming elections have you tiring of the theatre of politics, then why not check out some insightful political theatre? Along with voting, go see Strawdog’s snappy and relevant production of State of the Union.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

   
   

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Non-Equity Jeff Awards nominees announced

chicagoatnight

2010 Non-Equity Jeff Award Nominees

 

 

Production – Play
  Busman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Killer Joe Profiles Theatre (review ★★★½ )
The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
St. Crispin’s Day Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
Wilson Wants It All The House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)

 

Production – Musical
  Chess  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre i/a/w Michael James (review ★★½)
Evolution/Creation  -   Quest Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
The Glorious Ones   Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre 

 

Director – Play
  Aaron Todd Douglas: Twelve Angry Men Raven Theatre  (review ★★★)
Michael Menendian: Death of a SalesmanRaven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Michael Rohd: Wilson Wants It All House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)
Kimberly Senior: The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
Rick Snyder: – Killer Joe Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½)

  

Director – Musical
  Fred Anzevino & Brenda Didier: Chess – Theo Ubique Theatre (review ★★½)
Jeffrey CassThe Who’s TommyCircle Theatre
Stephen M. Genovese: The Glorious Ones Boho Rep (review ★★★)
Andrew Park: Evolution/CreationQuest Theatre Ensemble  (review ★★★)

 

Ensemble
  The Glorious Ones Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
Red Noses Strawdog Theatre Company
Twelve Angry Men
Raven Theatre  (review ★★★)
Under Milk Wood  Caffeine Theatre  (review ★★)

 

Actor in a Principal Role – Play
  Tony Bozzuto: On an Average DayBackStage Theatre Company 
Darrell W. Cox: Killer Joe
Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½)
Andrew Jessop: The PillowmanRedtwist Theatre (review ★★★)
Peter Robel: I Am My Own Wife Bohemian Theatre  (review ★★★★)
Chuck Spencer: Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre  (review ★★★½)

 

Actor in a Principle Role – Musical
  Courtney Crouse: ChessTheo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)
Tom McGunn: The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre
Eric Damon SmithThe Glorious Ones
Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★)
Jeremy Trager: Chess Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre   (review ★★½)

   

Actress in a Principle Role – Play
  Brenda BarrieMrs. CalibanLifeline Theatre  (review ★★★★)
LaNisa FrederickThe Gimmick Pegasus Players (review ★★)
Millicent HurleyLettice & Lovage Redtwist Theatre (review ★★★★)
Kendra Thulin: Harper Regan Steep Theatre  (review ★★½ )
Rebekah Ward-Hays: Aunt Dan and Lemon BackStage Theatre 

 

Actress in a Principle Role – Musical
  Danielle Brothers: Man of La Mancha Theo Ubique Theatre  (review ★★★)
Sarah Hayes: Man of La ManchaTheo Ubique Theatre   (review ★★★)
Maggie PortmanChess  Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)

 

Actor in a Supporting Role – Play
  Chance Bone: Cooperstown Theatre Seven of Chicago  (review ★★)
Jason HuysmanDeath of a Salesman Raven Theatre (review ★★★½)
Edward KuffertThe CrucibleInfamous Commonwealth (review ★★★)
Peter Oyloe: The Pillowman Redtwist Theatre   (review ★★★)
Phil TimberlakeBusman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★)

 

Actor in a Supporting Role – Musical
  Eric Lindahl: The Who’s Tommy Circle Theatre
Steve Kimbrough:
Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical Hell in a Handbag
John B. LeenChess Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre  (review ★★½)

 

Actress in a Supporting Role – Play
  Nancy Friedrich: The Crucible Infamous Commonwealth (review ★★★)
Vanessa Greenway: The Night SeasonVitalist Theatre i/a/w Premiere Theatre & Performance (review ★★★★)
Kelly Lynn HoganThe Night Season Vitalist Theatre i/a/w Premiere Theatre & Performance (review ★★★★)
Kristy Johnson: A Song for Coretta Eclipse Theatre  (review ★★)
Mary RedmonThe Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre  (review ★★★)

 

Actress in a Supporting Role – Musical
  Kate GarassinoBombs Away!  – Bailiwick Repertory Theatre  
Danni Smith
The Glorious Ones  -   Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★)
Trista Smith: Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical  -  Hell in a Handbag
Dana Tretta
The Glorious Ones  Bohemian Theatre   (review ★★★)

 

New Work
  Aaron CarterFirst Words  MPAACT (review ★★★)
Ellen FaireyGraceland Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★)
Tommy Lee JohnstonAura  Redtwist Theatre
Andrew Park and Scott Lamps
Evolution/Creation  -   Quest Theatre Ensemble (review ★★★)
Michael Rohd & Phillip C. KlapperichWilson Wants It All  -  The House Theatre of Chicago  (review ★★★)

 

New Adaptation
  Bilal Dardai: The Man Who Was ThursdayNew Leaf Theatre  
Sean Graney:  –
Oedipus  The Hypocrites (review ★★★★)
Frances LimoncelliBusman’s Honeymoon Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Frances Limoncelli:  – Mrs. Caliban  – Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
William Massolia: Little Brother  Griffin Theatre

 

Choreography
  Kevin BellieThe Who’s Tommy  Circle Theatre
Brenda Didier
Chess   Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (review ★★½)
James Brigitte DitmarsPoseidon! An Upside Down Musical  Hell in a Handbag Productions

 

Original Incidental Music
  Andrew Hansen: Treasure Island  -  Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★½)
Kevin O’Donnell:   -  Wilson Wants It All  -   House Theatre   (review ★★★)
Trevor WatkinThe Black Duckling  -  Dream Theatre

 

Music Direction
  Ryan BrewsterChess  – Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre (review ★★½)
Gary PowellEvolution/Creation  Quest Theatre   (review ★★★)
Nick SulaThe Glorious Ones  Bohemian Theatre   (review ★★★)

 

Scenic Design
  Tom BurchUncle Vanya Strawdog Theatre  (review ★★★)
Alan DonahueTreasure Island Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Heath HaysOn an Average Day  -   BackStage Theatre Company
Bob Knuth
The Analytical Engine  Circle Theatre (review ★★★)
Bob KnuthLittle Women  -   Circle Theatre (review ★★★)
John Zuiker:   I Am My Own Wife  -   Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★★)

 

Lighting Design
  Diane FairchildThe Gimmick  -  Pegasus Players (review ★★)
Kevin D. Gawley: Treasure Island Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Sean MallarySt. Crispin’s Day  – Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
Jared B. MooreThe Man Who Was Thursday New Leaf Theatre
Katy PetersonI Am My Own Wife
Bohemian Theatre (review ★★★★)

 

Costume Design
  Theresa HamThe Glorious Ones  -  Bohemian Theatre  (review ★★★)
Branimira IvanovaTreasure Island  Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★½)
Joanna MelvilleSt. Crispin’s Day  -  Strawdog Theatre Company (review ★★) Jill Van BrusselThe Taming of the Shrew  Theo Ubique  (review  ★★★)
Elizabeth WislarThe Analytical Engine  – Circle Theatre (review ★★★)

 

Sound Design
  Mikhail FikselOedipus The Hypocrites (review ★★★★)
Michael GriggsWilson Wants It AllThe House Theatre (review ★★★)
Andrew HansenTreasure Island Lifeline Theatre  (review ★★★½)  
Joshua HorvathMrs. CalibanLifeline Theatre (review ★★★★)
Miles PolaskiMouse in a Jar Red Tape Theatre  (review ★★)

 

Artistic Specialization
  Kevin Bellie: Projection Design, The Who’s Tommy  -   Circle Theatre
Elise Kauzlaric: Dialect Coach, 
Busman’s Honeymoon  Lifeline Theatre (review ★★★)
Lucas Merino: Video Design, Wilson Wants It AllThe House Theatre of Chicago (review ★★★)
James T. Scott:  Puppets, Evolution/Creation Quest Theatre (review ★★★)

 

Fight Choreography
  Geoff Coates: On An Average Day  -  BackStage Theatre Company
Geoff Coates
Treasure Island  Lifeline Theatre   (review ★★★½)
Matt HawkinsSt. Crispin’s DayStrawdog Theatre Company (review ★★)
R & D ChoreographyKiller Joe  Profiles Theatre  (review ★★★½  )

 

More info at the Jeff Awards website.

   
   

REVIEW: Harper Regan (Steep Theatre)

Kendra Thulin shines in U.S. premiere

Harper 3 

Steep Theatre Company presents:

Harper Regan

 

By Simon Stephens
Directed by Robin Witt
Through Feb. 27 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

My long-suffering husband, whose theatrical taste runs to comedies and musicals, tends to react to the odder dramas I drag him to with a question, "Why did they produce this play?"

I can’t answer on behalf of Steep Theatre Company, whose U.S. premiere of the quirky, dysfunctional-family drama Harper Regan is one of a raft of British plays in Chicago this season, but I can make some guesses. One is that Simon Stephens is one of England’s hottest playwrights, and the chance to introduce one of his newer works — "Harper Regan" premiered in 2008 at London’s National Theatre — had to be very Harper 1tempting. Another is that it has three very juicy roles for women and a lot of other parts that could be doled out to ensemble members. (Having grown accustomed to the shrunken casts of these straitened times, it’s refreshing to see a different actor for every part in a play, though several male roles might easily have been doubled.)

Exquisitely acted and painstakingly directed as it is, however, Harper Regan may be more satisfying for its cast than for audiences. The plot follows the breaking up or breaking out, depending on how you look at it, of Harper Regan, 40-ish, middle-class and troubled. Her father is dying, her boss is a creep, she hates her job, her husband’s out of work, she’s not getting along with her 17-year-old daughter, they had to move from her northern England hometown to unfamiliar suburban London, she’s not speaking to her mother, and she is deeply insecure.

In an exceptional performance in the title role, Kendra Thulin shows us Harper’s discomfort and self-doubt in every line of her body, cringing and hesitating as, having asked her supercilious employer (Alex Gillmor) for time off to visit her ailing father, she listens to his hectoring refusal. Later, apologizing to her daughter for some sharp words, she says, "I’m so weird, aren’t I?"

Harper 2Caroline Neff is intense and believable as Harper’s nerdy, conflicted daughter, more comfortable with her iPod than her mother. Chelsea Warren’s costumes, notably for Harper and her daughter and mother, show a fine attention to detail.

Act I lags somewhat as the initial facts of Harper’s life slowly emerge, mostly in talky monologues and peculiar conversations she has with unsettling strangers. At last, she leaves home, not telling anyone she’s going. In Act II, we get more disturbing revelations: Why her husband can’t find work. Why they had to move. Why Harper and her mum are at odds. And, most importantly, we see that Harper is even weirder and more unstable than she seems.

Melissa Reimer puts in a strong performance as Harper’s estranged mother. Peter Moore performs sensitively as her down-and-out husband. Curtis M. Jackson is realistic as a teenager she meets near home, while Dan Flannery seems stiff as an older man she encounters during her time away. Julia Siple, Jonathan Edwards, Brendan Melanson and Adam El-Sharkawi fill out the cast.

Marcus Stephens’ stark, leaf-strewn concrete set echoes the harshness of Harper’s world, yet seems inappropriate for many of the indoor scenes, among many off-kilter aspects of this unlikely psychodrama.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Notes: Adult language and themes.  All photos by Lee Miller

WITH ENSEMBLE MEMBERS Jonathan Edwards, Alex Gillmor, Brendan Melanson, Peter Moore, Caroline Neff, Melissa Riemer and Julia Siple
AND Adam El-Sharkawi, Dan Flannery, Curtis Jackson and Kendra Thulin
PRODUCTION MANAGER Julia Siple* STAGE MANAGER Jon Ravenscroft SCENIC DESIGN Marcus Stephens LIGHTING DESIGN Brandon Wardell COSTUME DESIGN Chelsea Warren COSTUME ASST Gwen Smuda SOUND DESIGN Matthew Chapman PROPS DESIGN Jesse Gaffney DIALECT COACH Eva Brenneman DRAMATURG Gemma Hobbs            *denotes company member